Lee Krasner: The wild artist who brought colour to dazzling life

Published in BBC Culture June 4, 2019

“Change is life.” So said Lee Krasner, in an interview in 1972 – in doing so, the artist captured a truth about her work as well an essential fact of human existence. As an artist, she never stayed still; unlike many of the other Abstract Expressionists she’s sometimes grouped with, Krasner never developed a signature style, but instead remained restlessly reinventive.

She played with scale, with colour, with material: to look at her work is be dazzled by small, jewelled surfaces or struck by the violence of huge, monochrome canvasses; to be seduced by tactile, colour-popping collages, or have your stomach turned by disturbingly fleshy forms. All of which means that she’s never – like her husband Jackson Pollock – become a short-hand for a certain kind of painting.

And Krasner, who died in 1984, had a destructive streak: “I no sooner settle into something than a break occurs,” she once commented, and work she didn’t like was destroyed, albeit often in fascinatingly creative ways. The fact that there isn’t a substantial, coherent body of Krasner work is also, perhaps, why she’s less known than her contemporaries Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning, or indeed that famous partner. There also aren’t any diaries or many letters; it isn’t easy to pin a personal narrative on her, in the way we especially like to do with female artists.

Ah yes – ‘female artist’. Not a term of which Krasner would have approved. In Vogue in 1972, Krasner said “I’m an artist – not a ‘woman artist’.” But is it also possible her gender might be part of the reason she’s been under-recognised? Of course it is. 

Krasner was a woman in a man’s world – Abstract Expressionism being a seriously male mid-century art movement. And she was likely further overlooked thanks to having a husband as famous, mythologised even, as Pollock – not to mention that she became, on his death in 1956, the sole executor his estate. “Krasner was mostly neglected or dismissed while Pollock was alive, and was marginalised for nearly a decade after his death,” writes the critic John Yau.

But a new show – Lee Krasner: Living Colour – which has just opened at the Barbican in London, should put her name on people’s lips. Krasner is not exactly unsung in the art world – she has had major museum shows in the US – but somehow this is her first retrospective in Europe (made in conjunction with Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao).

While giving Krasner her dues is the aim of the game, it’s no feminist-revisionist booing of Pollock. While his alcoholism and aggressive behaviour were obviously no picnic, theirs was a mutually respectful partnership of equals, in the eyes of their own marriage it seems. He neither turned her into an artist, nor hampered her creativity: “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock”, Krasner insisted.

An explosive attraction

Krasner’s commitment to change started young. She was born Lena, the first child of her émigré Orthodox Russian Jewish parents to be born on US soil, in 1908; her family had fled a shtetl outside Odessa. But as a teenager, she changed her name to Lenore, and later reinvented herself as the more androgynous Lee.

Krasner developed a fearsome reputation, known as wilful and prickly. “Lee was not ‘easy’– and what a blessing is there; protect us from ‘easy’ women,” said her friend, the playwright Edward Albee. But the picture of her as a young woman is a little more frivolous: while studying art at the City College of New York, she also worked as a life model, merrily posing naked on a beach with her lover, the splendidly and aptly named Igor Pantuhoff.

In 1937, she went to study at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts – Hofmann being a modernist who knew Picasso and Braque. Hofmann was a tough master, drawing on her work to show where she was going wrong and tearing students’ work into pieces if he felt it could be more dynamically composed. He also famously told Krasner her work was “so good you would not know it was painted by a woman”. Still, his steering her towards Cubist abstraction was hugely important for Krasner.

The next major rupture in her creative life was Pollock. In 1942, the War Services Project (which grew out of Roosevelt’s New Deal job-creation programme) got Krasner to supervise the design of 20 department store window displays, advertising war courses. For research, Krasner joined a class on how to make chemical explosives.

Coming into contact with Pollock at an exhibition the same year caused its own explosion, however: Krasner recalled being “just stunned” by his work, and “terribly drawn” to him as a man. She got him assigned to her window display team, that they might work together. 

Three years later, they were married, and moved to a Long Island farm house. It was a place to live, but also a place to work. The barn was Pollock’s workspace, and Krasner had the upstairs bedroom as a studio. There, she made a series of small works called Little Images, made by laying a canvas on a table and working from above. These were candy-bright with a tutti-frutti quality, or had a fizzing, static look. Later iterations seem to jostle within geometric grids and patterns. 

The Little Images won Krasner her first solo show in 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery. It was “cautiously well received by critics” according to the Barbican’s curator Eleanor Nairne, but the work did not sell. Krasner was bitterly disappointed.

But out of this came an act of destruction that was to transform Krasner’s way of working. A phoenix-like moment, that should be the stuff of art legend, really. One day in 1953, she walked into her studio, hung with drawings. She “hated it all, took it down, tore everything and threw it on the floor”, Krasner later recounted. A couple of weeks later, when she walked back in, “the floor was solidly covered with these torn drawings that I had left and they began to interest me and I started collaging”.

She layered her torn-up drawings over the works she felt were failures from her Betty Parsons show, transfiguring her own artistic output. Making the new out of the old.

Collage became hugely important to Krasner. And she even started layering in fragments of Pollock’s work, as in 1955’s Bald Eagle. Yau suggests that “by using discards from her own, unknown paintings in combination with drawings branded in Pollock’s world-famous style, she is both attacking the failed works and transforming them into something fresh and new – simultaneously mocking and superseding the male power structure”.

Many years later, in 1977, Krasner pulled off a similar trick with her own personal legacy and that of her teacher Hofmann. After finding a stack of drawings she made as a student, she cut them up for collages. Jagged and disorientating, like a reflection in a smashed mirror, they feel like Cubism squared: her Cubist studies given an extra dimension through not only the act of cutting and layering them, but also from the passing of time.

Painting through the pain

Back to 1955 – and a show of her initial, softer, hand-torn collages at the Stable Gallery in New York was well received, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg later anointing it “a major addition to the American art scene of that era”. But beyond the story of their genesis, what really stands out about these works today is her use of colour.

Burning Candles, a joyous burst of small, delicately shredded pieces of peach and yellow, black and forget-me-not blue, seems to flutter before the eye as if harvested from butterflies. Milkweed could be a colour swatch for a hip new restaurant opening, with its slices of taupe and mushroom, cream and lemongrass, an orange-sherbet accent. And I’d like a swinging summer skirt in the palette of Desert Moon, please: tangerine, red, black and cherry-yoghurt-pink all chopped together gloriously.

The show went well. And then, in 1956, tragedy. Krasner, sick of Pollock’s erratic behaviour, went to France; and while she was away, he crashed a car while drunk and died. Krasner was devastated – and she painted through the pain. 

Shortly before Pollock’s death, she’d worked on a painting, the eerily-titled Prophecy, in a wholly new style. Its fleshy shapes and aggressive dark lines form warped bodies, entangled or damaged; it could be sex, it could be violence. 

“Prophecy was painted at a moment when Pollock’s alcoholism was worsening and their relationship felt under considerable strain,” Nairne explains in a catalogue essay. “Krasner recalled that her new work ‘disturbed me enormously’, although Pollock reassured her that ‘it was a good painting, and said not to think about it, just continue’.”

Continue she did, even after his death. Birth, Embrace and Three in Two followed in the same, deeply unsettling style. And then Krasner’s mother died, in 1959.

The artist experienced a period of deep depression and severe insomnia. Even this proved creative, however: Krasner had moved into Pollock’s studio in the barn, and produced her Night Journeys series. Large scale – now she had all that room – and painted only in swirls of umber paint – the only colour she could trust under artificial light – they are kinetic, violently so, seeming to turn inward with a spiral of frustration.

But the paintings of Krasner’s that are sure to win the public’s hearts are perhaps not these pain-soaked works, but her later experiments with colour. Her work from the 1960s and 1970s certainly lives up to the show’s title: Living Colour. 

Things had seriously warmed by her Primary Series of the mid-1960s, although it’s hardly limited to primary colours: these paintings hum in fuchsia, hot pink, orange, emerald and acid green. Although some have a scratchy sense of movement, others shift towards more organic, biomorphic shapes, and have a fluid, watery quality.

Her work from the 1970s, meanwhile, finds harder, more defined edges, while still using colours that combine and play off each other like an unexcepted chord progression. One of these is the gorgeous Palingenesis from 1971, made of clear-cut shapes in shades of green and magenta. Its title refers to the Greek term for ‘rebirth’ – that classic Krasner concept, there even towards the end of her career.

“I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point. And, as the limitations are something called pigment and canvas, let’s see if I can do it,” Krasner once challenged herself. She could; she did. Her work still lives and breathes today. 

Lee Krasner: Living Colour is at the Barbican until 1 September 2019

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